Lakeside High School hired a new baseball coach, built a new practice facility and spruced up its field during the off-season.
But the Panthers' lineup hasn't changed much, and that's reason for Lakeside to be confident as it prepares for its Wednesday season-opener at rival Greenbrier.
"I feel like we've got a good shot this year, just because we're experienced," Lakeside's Patrick Arrington said. "I guess we're just an all-around good team."
Lakeside coach T.J. Davis' team includes 11 seniors, 10 returning from last season. Catcher Mike Gram returns for his senior season after signing to play for Limestone College. Gram led the Panthers in batting as a junior and also pitched.
Pitcher Harrison Brawley is back as the Panthers' ace. The senior's wins last season included a key game at Statesboro and a home win over Greenbrier, the first time the Panthers had beaten the Wolfpack in three years.
The Panthers' rotation should also include Ben Black, Ryan Shipp and Ryan Hutchins, who is back after being slowed by an arm injury last season.
"So far, he's doing a lot better," Davis said of Hutchins. "He's staying healthy. I think (as a) staff, we're pretty deep."
Harlem is another county team hoping its staff remains deep.
Last season, the Bulldogs relied heavily on senior Steven Waters down the stretch. Harlem coach Jimmie Lewis should have several arms to work with this season.
Senior Phillip Summers is back after arm problems all but erased his junior year. Lewis plans to make senior Patrick Gamblin a starter after the Winthrop signee served as a closer during his junior year.
"Gamblin throws the ball too hard not to be a starter," Lewis said. "If we can put him out there on the mound as a starter, he can be a force."
The Bulldogs are coming off a season in which they won the Region 3-AAA title. Lewis' squad will compete for a consecutive title with other tradition-rich schools from Region 3-AAAA.
"Obviously, it's going to be tougher than it was last year," Gamblin said. "We got Lakeside. We got Evans. Cross Creek's going to be a tough one. Westside's going to be tough. I think a lot of people are underrating them. ... It's a tough region, but we can come out on top."
Evans coach Ricky Beale and the Knights expect to be in that mix.
Evans returns an experienced infield, with seniors Kevin Caughman and Jeff Rice having played together the past two seasons. Knights' junior Tevin Nelson will make the switch from left field to center this season.
Beale is confident his defense up the middle is solid. The Knights pitching staff, he's not as sure about.
Beale said he has used multiple arms during the team's scrimmages and that no set rotation had developed. Junior Matt Blume will pitch and play first base. Blume started on the Knights' junior varsity squad last season and pitched five innings during Game 3 of the varsity's state playoff series with Lee County.
"He's not going to be one of those guys who overpowers people," Beale said. "He moves it around, locates it, throws all of his off-speed stuff. For him to be successful, he's got to hit his spots."
Beale and the Knights open their season Monday when they play host to rival Greenbrier. Beale said it would be strange looking across the field and seeing Chris Wilkins in green. The former Richmond Academy coach joined Greenbrier last summer and inherited a young team.
The Wolfpack, who will compete in Region 2-AAAAA, graduated 13 seniors last season, including pitcher Nolan Belcher.
But Greenbrier does have a small core of returning players who should make an impact: T.D. Davis, who recently signed a scholarship to play for Georgia Perimeter; the athletic Ben Turner; senior Justin Thigpen; and left-handed pitcher Chad Farmer.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.